Sunday, March 27, 2011

Closer than you think

I curl my legs beneath me on my brown, black and gray squiggle-stripe couch (I swear, it's not quite so bad looking as it sounds ☺) and select a trashy magazine from the pile of glossy  periodicals on my coffee table.  From the soccer field beside my apartment I hear the static-filled sound check of a PA system cough to life and a bassist strum through a collection of chords.  I set down my magazine, a cloud of dust rising up from the couch cushion, and walk onto my terrace rooftop overlooking the clearing below.  I crane my neck and see groups of Malians arriving in bachées and on foot, descending from sputtering mini-vans and Jakarta-brand motos to arrange plastic lawn chairs in a semi-circle and erect a tarpaulin shelter to protect against the relentless, even in the afternoon, sun.  Women sporting outfits in an indistinguishable-design-yet-certainly-matching fabric test out the microphones, greet arriving guests and prepare the dirt clearing with hand-made straw brooms.  A wedding party?  Another extravagant baptism?  Evangelizing Christians?  The wind catches a white banner and I read the banderole's blocky letters painted with care on a white sheet: 'Union Pour la Republique et la Démocratie.'  No, today we will not be throwing our money into the mouths of hungry griots but rather the empty hands of politicians.  It's a political rally!  

Bamako is no stranger to political rallies and while they are entertaining and certainly colorful with all their wax print fabrics and singing and dancing – it is the protests and demonstrations elsewhere in the world that are capturing the attention of the media.  Lately it is as though the barometer of North African politics is mounting in conjunction with Mali's hot season – la vie commence à chauffer deh! and the barometers of both are rising quickly.    From Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, political landscapes around the world are shifting drastically as people who have lived under dictatorships their entire lives begin to speak out against the injustice of suppression and autocratic rule.  This malcontent is not isolated, as we have now seen, to North Africa.  Middle Eastern countries are playing political dominoes as we watch from afar, and sometimes closer, the toppling of draconian regimes.  One can only hope these leaders will be replaced with  governments that actually represent the interests of their populations and not just the interests of their off-shore bank accounts.

Politics in the Ivory Coast, south-western neighbor to Mali, are not much better than those of the countries to the north.  While the Ivory Coast recently held democratic, multi-party elections, the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, who was defeated by Alassane Ouattara, refuses to hand over the presidency and his control of the Ivory Coast's rich resources (the Ivory Coast is the world's largest exporter of cocoa and home to many other natural resources).  Since the elections in November the United Nations has sent over 10,000 troops to prevent more bloodshed in this country that has barely recovered from a civil war just 10 years ago.  Over 500 people have lost their lives due to this presidential stale-mate and the number of regionally-internally displaced peoples is estimated to soon surpass 1,000,000 – in a country where the population is just over 21,000,000.  1 in 20 Ivoirians are fleeing their homes.  1 in 20 Ivoirians will soon be flooding the borders of neighboring countries and continents.  Is one of them yours?

Mali is a country situated geographically and politically in the middle of the instability surging in both Libya and the Ivory Coast.  While I have never been better received as an American than while living in Mali – there has been a palpable shift in some Malian's sentiments towards Americans, at least in Bamako, since the implementation by NATO of the no-fly zone in Libya.  Muammar Ghadaffi has invested heavily in Mali and many associate his money with his heart.  It is clear, though, as Ghadaffi continues to massacre his own people that this terrorist has no heart.

And with the Ivory Coast as a direct neighbor to Mali, and the previous allure of employment in Abidjan so high, many Malian friends of mine anxiously await news of their family in Abidjan or are finding room in their homes to welcome back relatives fleeing the thieves and insecurity of the Ivory Coast.  Just last week I noticed 7 Greyhound size buses parked not too far from my apartment and, I later learned, in front of the Mauritanian embassy in Mali.  'Aw be taa min?' I asked.  Where are you going?  'Mauritania,' they replied.  'Nga aw bora min?' I continued.  But where are you coming from?  'Abidjan,' they answered.  The travelers – tired-looking, dusty and surely hungry from such a long voyage – (and only ½ way to their destination) said they were escaping Abidjan, the Ivory Coast's capital, which had recently fallen to banditry and random shootings.

Ghadaffi and Gbagbo are clinging to power in countries where their people clearly no longer want them there.  These autocrats are massacring populations to hold on to authority over a people who have clearly had enough.  When will they finally listen to what not only the international community, but their fellow countrymen, are saying so loudly?  Relinquish your power and pass it over to a leader of, and for, the people  

Orange and Sotelma, two phone-service providers in Mali, broadcast messages from time to time to their customers to advertise for bonus phone credits 'buy 1,000 – 5,000 CFA in credit, get 100% in bonus credit' among other promotions.  They also partner with private organizations such as UNICEF to promote events such as International Hand Washing Day and International Women's Day – 'Journée International de la femme!  Envoyez FEMME à 3757 et recevez un message pour envoyez à toutes vos proches! (300 CFA/message).'    In the car on the way back from a visit from to one of USAID/PHARE's multi-age classrooms, all the phones in the car dinged with their respective text-message indicators.  'Inscrivez-vous sur Facebook pour rester connecter avec vos proches!'  Youssouf, the head of USAID/PHARE's training programs, scoffed.  'Facebook?  Why would I want to subscribe to facebook?  Do they think I want a revolution in my country?!' he said.

Bamako is filled with extravagant mansions, villas with bougainvillea flowers creeping over 10 foot walls and more Hummer and Lexus brand cars than you would expect to see in a country ranking 178 on the UN's poverty index.  Bamako is also filled with people just scraping by, literally, to make a living.  Malians welcomed multi-party, democratic elections earlier than most in West Africa following a coup d'etat on March 26, 1991.  The extreme political instability of the countries surrounding Mali to the North, South, East and West make their democracy  appear all the more outstanding.  But democracy on paper and democracy in practice are not the same.

Have your gas prices been going up recently?  Have you tried shopping in a grocery store in Mali that receives its products via the ports of Abidjan?  The reverberations of the political unrest in countries that seem so far away are closer than we think.  Political rallies, like the one that took place just below my apartment, are on the rise in Bamako with presidential elections projected to take place in Mali in spring 2012.  Maybe that text message from Orange and Soltelma is a prophesy for things to come.  Maybe Mali could use a little more Facebook – and a spoonful of revolution – in their lives, too.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Bamako baptism

The taxi starts and stops in the heart of frenzied rush hour traffic. Motorcycle drivers pull precariously close to our yellow Mercedes taxi and make wordless supplications to our cab driver to join their game of Tetris. The rumble of their engines pours through our open windows as we try to catch a breeze in the steamy, afternoon heat. However, instead of cool breezes to soothe us, our sweating faces are met with a stifling wind that feels more like we have opened the door to an oven. I turn my head to see what is happening beyond the chorus of purring engines and see women weave quickly between the corral of impatient cars while balancing market wares on their heads and babies on their backs à la Africaine.

Deeba Cissoko, a cousin of my friend Worokia, sits beside me in the backseat of the cab in her raspberry bazin complet with light pink – and elaborate – embroidery and looks unfazed by the commotion surrounding us. She is a 6th year medical student at the University of Bamako where she is studying to be a general practitioner. She has a smile that makes me feel welcome and a laugh that makes me want to share in on the joke. I compliment her intricate bazin complet that positively sparkles in the gentle afternoon sunlight peeking over Koulouba hill where Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) resides in his presidential palace. She looks down and laughs to the door, returning the compliment as she pulls a packet of tissues out of her clutch and gently dabs at the perspiration collecting along her hairline. It is Friday afternoon and we are sharing this cab headed towards the grande marchée to attend the baptism of Worokia’s baby. How Worokia and I, and subsequently Deeba and I, have come to know each other is a story longer than a Bamako commute from Kalabancoura to Hippodrome in a Sotrama. I would like to think it is a story worth telling all the same.

‘An ka taa!’ Haidara calls out from the white Land Rover parked in the PHARE compound. It is early February and we have spent the morning hurrying up to wait as we prepare for our trip to Segou to man a USAID/PHARE table at the music festival. Booth materials in the trunk and gas in the tank and we are finally ready to hit the road. As I buckle up Haidara coaxes the engine into first gear and says ‘before we leave we need to go by my house and pick up my bag.’ Are you serious? I think to myself. We spent all morning waiting to leave and now we are backtracking into what is sure to be a traffic-filled neighborhood to pick up your bag for this trip you knew we were taking the night before?? But just as quickly as I make these silent inquiries I admonish myself for being so hasty. Daylight hours lay before us and I am sitting in the front seat of an air-conditioned Land Rover. Things could be worse.

Haidara, one of the 8 drivers for PHARE, pulls our squeaky clean SUV beside a rusting, red metal door that looks like all the others on this cobblestone street. We lock each of the doors by hand, the automatic lock long broken on our trusty vehicle, and call out ‘aw ni ce!’ to the folks scattered throughout the interior of his family’s compound. Haidara’s mother calls out urgently to me ‘Toubabu!! Ca va?! Ca va bien?! Toubabu!’ while Haidara’s wife shushes her with a belly laugh as she directs me upstairs.

In the living room where I have been directed to sit and wait, Haidara’s younger sisters and nieces, who are about my age, lounge in their pajamas on overstuffed couches as they watch television and make and receive phone calls from fancy looking telephones. I sit awkwardly on one of the uncomfortable, empty chairs and feel, for once, overdressed in this room of pajama-clad women. Toddlers and teenagers wander in and out and look at me with question mark faces. After establishing that I speak Bambara, the rigidity of the room melts away. ‘Eh, I ye bamana-muso deh!’ they decide while choosing from among a selection of hair weaves a man has brought by on his bicycle. ‘Awo, n sonna,’ I say. I cannot help but laugh and agree. ‘When do you come back from Segou?’ one of the girls asks. ‘Saturday afternoon. In ch’allah,’ I reply. If God is willing. They nod their agreement and one of the sisters gets up to retrieve something from her room. ‘You must come to our koromuso’s wedding on Sunday. It is at the National Museum at 9 a.m. and we’ll just cry if you don’t make it,’ declares the sister-who-went-to-retrieve-something. She hands me an invitation printed on shiny paper with a pink satin bow tied through the top. I read in a script-y font about the joyous nuptials about to take place at one of my favorite places in Bamako. The bride-to-be is sleeping in the one of the adjacent bedrooms but nonetheless, without knowing her or really her family, I quickly agree ‘Ni Allah sonna-ma, n be na.’ If God is willing, I will be there.

The morning of the wedding I zip into a newly tailored dress and slip on a pair of shiny, black, peep-toe wedges. After twirling once or twice in front of my full length mirrors I step over my laundry from a week spent in Segou, collect my ID and some CFA and I am out the door. ‘Djelika, I para-la deh!’ Ma calls out as I pass her downstairs – you look good! I pick up a paté on the side of the road and munch on my fried breakfast treat as I walk with purpose, and try to look like a natural in my towering heels, towards the gates of the National Museum. I check my watch – it is 9:03 and, certainly for Mali, I am just on time. I scan the grounds for a wedding party and spy white satin and lace not far in the distance. My invitation in hand – it says after all, par invitation seulement – I approach the wedding party and ask for Fanta Haidara – the bride-to-be I have never met. The sister of a group of women I barely know.

΄Fanta? No, this is not Fanta΄s wedding,’ says one of the many on-lookers. ‘Come and take a picture with us, though. It will be a bon souvenir, quoi,’ the family implores. I take a picture with the bride, whose name I do not know, and her troupe of cotton-candy-colored-bazin clad bridesmaids and continue my quest to find Fanta Haidara – the bride for whom I have gotten up this early on a Sunday.

Seeing no other wedding parties throughout the park or museum, and after confirming with the guards there are no other weddings parties presently on the grounds, I content myself to watch the leaves fall as I sit on one of the many benches in the National Park which is connected to the museum. I periodically take a tour and check if any of Fanta’s wedding party has arrived. I have no one in the family’s phone number, not even Haidara’s, but the guards confirm that yes, Fanta Haidara is having a wedding here today. At 10:30 I spy a woman, entering the museum and dressed to impress, and follow her trail. ‘Are you here for Fanta’s wedding?’ I ask. ‘Yes! And I rushed to get here!’ she said, out of breath and with her head wrap slung over her shoulder waiting to be tied. Rushed? I think to myself… You’re an hour and ½ late… Brushing aside my American notion of time, we seek out the reception area and receive yet another confirmation that yes, Fanta’s wedding will be here but no, the wedding party has not yet arrived. My new partner-in-waiting and I decide, since we have the time, to take a walk around the Park. I learn her name, Worokia, and that she is 8 ½ months pregnant, something I could not tell at first glance due to her large, flowing complet. She talks about her increasingly large belly and some of her fears and delights as she looks forward to the birth of her first child. In the States I am used to seeing very pregnant women and hearing them share stories about birthing classes they are taking and whether they have decided to breast-feed or not. Here in Mali, however, pregnancy is more of a taboo topic and something you do not talk about for fear of jinxing the pregnancy. All that to say – hearing Worokia speak so openly about her own impending ‘accouchement’ took me aback and facilitated our speedy friendship. Once Fanta’s wedding party finally arrived – at 12:30 p.m. and 3 ½ hours after the indicated start time on the invitation – Worokia, a cousin of Fanta’s, took me under her wing and introduced me to all the family I still did not know and made sure I had enough to eat and drink and a shady place to sit. I should have been doing those things for her considering her baby bulge!

And all of that brings us to how I find myself in a taxi with Deeba on a Friday afternoon heading towards the crowded grande marchée for the baptism of a baby of a woman I just barely know who I met at the wedding of a woman I had never met.
Worokia (right) and a friend holding her baby girl
Deeba takes my hand as we enter the narrow passageway of a home nestled in the heart of one of the biggest markets in Bamako. Old men sit outside on low-lying benches, waving their greetings to passers-by. Women hawk sweet potato fries and fried plantains from even lower-lying stools positioned behind tables covered with shiny metal serving trays of their afternoon treats. While the entry-way to this home is narrow – the crowd that awaits us conjures even more claustrophobic fears of where I would go were a fire to break out. Women and children, dressed in the crispest and waxiest bazin to be found, sit on all varieties of seating arrangements. Benches, plastic string chairs, stools, woven mats, metal chairs – a rainbow of seats squeezed into all available spaces. Worokia sees Deeba and I enter and waves me over to join her on her mat. My jaw drops at her make-up and outfit. Layers of tulle, eye-shadow and bazin before me – I barely recognize my new friend from the last time I saw her at Fanta’s wedding. I lay down gifts – fabric, soap and a baby outfit – at Worokia’s feet and squeeze out my own seat between an already towering pile of pagnes and boxes of safiné. Settled in, I let my eyes wander and am wowed by the glamour of the occasion.

I quickly scan the compound and estimate there are over 200 women and children – the only men a videographer and a drummer – crammed into this prime real estate with a communal space measuring maybe 50x100 feet. The women all clutch large handbags made from various reflective, synthetic materials on their laps and the children sport too-large-for-their-faces sunglasses and freshly pressed toddler clothes. I am one of maybe 2 other women in the compound wearing simple wax fabric – the rest of the crowd opting instead for the much more expensive and lustrous bazin option. And while I had selected one of my best complets this morning, I am starting to feel very plain-jane in this sea of shine.

Out of the sea of shine, one woman stands up and starts to shout. The praises of the griot have begun and I prepare myself to hear the accolades of Worokia and her new baby girl – as well as those wealthy enough to feed the mouth of the griot. As the praises begin, so does the trail of money between those being praised and those delivering the praises. Crisp 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and even the occasional 10,000 CFA bills, fresh from the bank, are passed over heads and hands and into the expectant palms of the griots – the one griot having now turned into 4 or 5.
Yay for me!  Griot stands behind with her megaphone
As praises continue from crowded corners of the compound, friends and family of Worokia count and recount the gifts received. Pagnes, soap, cash. ‘Nin waari boora Faransi!’ shouts one of the griots as she shakes 50,000 CFA above her head. There is even money coming from France. A Wall Street fervor coats family member’s voices as they cry out the mounting tally of presents. ‘50 pagnes,’ a sister cries! ‘70 pagnes,’ a griot shouts! I am having a hard time following the series of praises and money tallies while food is simultaneously passed around and am thankful when Deeba waves to me that a chair has opened up next to her. I pat Worokia’s hennaed foot and slowly unfold my legs from underneath me on the mat.
Just a little further... a griot reaches to receive some crisp CFA from Worokia after singing her praises

The final count of gifts puts Worokia, and her new baby, 70 pagnes (over 730 feet of fabric) the better and over 500,000 CFA (over $1,000 USD) richer. I keep asking Deeba to repeat the cries of the griots – their Bambara mumbled and jumbled through the crackling sound system and my ears untrained to catch much beyond the beginnings of the blessings ‘Allah ka…!’ – May God....
counting the bounty!
 The ‘fitiri’ call to prayer – the sunset prayer – echoes from a mosque nearby and reverberates throughout the market and into the compound where we are celebrating the birth of Worokia’s ‘sirani’ – her first baby. The pigeons, just moments before enjoying the cries of the griots and the crumbs of rice and meat left by absent eaters, scatter to another post, another family’s celebrations to find another roost to rest.

At baptisms in village, where I spent my first two years in Mali, I would offer the same soap and fabric to a new mother as I did to Worokia. If there was an official baptism, we would share rice and sauce with the women of the village and those same women would offer what they could monetarily to the new mother – just like at the baptism for Worokia’s baby girl. 100 CFA (about 25 cents) was an average donation – 200 CFA was generous.

The per capital income for a Malian, according to the State Department, is $470 USD and a skilled laborer’s annual income is $1,560 USD. There are more than a few shock factors present in Worokia’s Bamako baptism equation. First – the average income of a skilled laborer in Mali. Even with a much lower cost of living than say, in the States, that is not a lot of money to feed a family and live in a city. Second – that Worokia received more in one day than what most Malians make in a year. Thirdly, and to me the most shocking, is the incredible disparity between what a woman in village receives at your average baptism and what a woman in Bamako can receive. You know what is also hard to swallow? This disparity in income and standard of living frequently exists within Bamako – just next door a baptism may be taking place similar to those in village.
Worokia's 'sirani'
I wave goodbye to Worokia and Fanta Haidara’s sisters who are also in the mix of attendees. The calls of the griots become less frequent and family and friends begin to file out. I catch the videographer’s eye as I navigate the maze of chairs and folds of fabric and knees on my way out. He clicks on his hand-held light to illuminate my shining face in front of his lens as night gently falls around me. ‘Allah ka balon!’ I yelp into his yellow light. May your baby get big! ‘Allah ka den cekani waati be!’ – May your baby always be beautiful. ‘Allah ka lamosidi a somogo ma,’ I continue – may the baby’s parents live long to see the baby grow up. I have run out of blessings and dusk has turned to nightfall. The camera clicks off and I slip out the narrow passageway I used to enter. Women tease me as I leave – ‘When will we be celebrating the birth of your first baby?’ they call out. I smile and wave down a taxi. ‘Allah ka yira an la’ I call back. May God show us the day! While it will take awhile to process the extravagance of the baptism for Worokia’s first baby – the birth of a baby is reason for celebration all the same. My only regret from the day? Amid the cries of the griots and the money tallies shouted by family and friends – I did not catch the baby girl’s name.

Listen to a griot shout Worokia and her baby girl's praises

Where did you come from??  A griot sings praises from a doorway in the compound
Filming the show

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Top 10 on the 10th

These sunbeams attempt  to look harmless as they cast their treacherous rays on these beds of lettuce in Bamako but beware.  Harmless they are not! 
On Sunday, as Ma prophesied last month, I bathed 4 times.  No, I had not been engaging in hard, manual labor.  Nor had I even exercised - though both are interesting ideas and ones to which I will contribute extensive thought.  No, my friends and family, hot season in Mali is upon us.  For those among you who have had (what I hope to be) the extreme delight of visiting, or living in, Mali - you know what I'm talking about.

Sweat creeps out of your pores before you've finished drying off from your shower.  Stifling, heavy air on public transport that, even though you have a fan, leaves you sitting in stifling, heavy air.  Hormonal electricity  turns on and off on a whim.  You finish drinking a liter of water from your Nalgene and find yourself looking longingly at the empty bottle in your hand wondering where that liter of sweet, cool liquid has gone and where the next liter will come from.  

Yes, dear loved ones back in Ameriki or at least north of the Sahara desert and south of the equator, hot season in Mali is here.  While you enjoy the gentle shifting of the seasons from a wrap-around porch or sip ice-cold lemonade while watching flower buds morph into spring, the cool from the breezes has been ripped cruelly from my Malian nights and been replaced by dust storms and parched plants.  

Wouldn't it be great if there was an open fire hydrant for these neighborhood girls (and me!) to run through??

But don't think it's all sweat and lots of tears - there are some good things about this time of year!  In that spirit, I would like to give this year's Malian hot season a special welcome with a top 10 list.  Living in Bamako, I imagine my third hot season in Mali will be a little different from the past two spent 'en brusse'.  Well, at least I hope it will be a little different.  I'll get back to you in a few months.  

In no particular, but very likely sub-consciously particular, order - my Malian hot season top 10:
1. Juicy, sweet Mangoes
2. Frozen hibiscus tea
3. An air-conditioned office
5. Swimming pools
6. Refrigerators
7. Heightened appreciation for sprinkler systems
8. Heightened appreciation for all things water/ice related
9. I have an excuse for looking sweaty/disheveled (even though all other Malian women continue to look as though they've just emerged from an air-conditioned salon)
10. When you come around, it means we're that much closer to rainy season

Yes, Mr. Hot Season (even though in french you are a lady), you may leave traces of dirt in folds of skin I knew not existed before (apparently I have a very crease-y neck and arms) but you, like all villains that have come before and those that will come after, do possess redeeming qualities as listed above.  And while I know you are a natural progression in the changing of the seasons and I would never want to interfere with Mother Nature who I imagine to be as formidable a foe as my landlord Ma - also know that all invitations have both a start and stop time.  Do your thing for a month or two but please - just don't stay too long.    

Do you have any tips for surviving the hot season or good stories from ones you spent here in Mali?  I'd love to hear them!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Birthdays are nature’s way of telling us to eat more cake

This past Monday I celebrated my 25th birthday – and my third in Mali – and now I have a whole ¼ of a century under my pagne!  When I tell American friends I have turned 25 they wave their hand as though brushing away a concern – how young!  But what are you doing with your life, they ask?  When I tell Malians I have turned 25 they shake their heads as though bemoaning the passing of time – unmarried and without children?!  But what are you doing with your life, they insist?

Thanks to Jamie for hosting a killer birthday bash this past weekend!

While the tone of the question seems to ask for different responses – I get the feeling my American friends are looking for more of a career road map whereas my Malian friends are looking for more of a wedding or delivery date – the answer is still the same.  On verra! I say, we will see! 

 oooh!  All locked up so we'll never know the secret of 'the beautiful women'

Most of the Peace Corps Volunteers I meet in Mali apologize when they ask what I am doing when I COS (close-of-service) because they cringe when someone else asks the same of them.  Birthdays are lovely times to reflect on the question though and so I have been doing a fair share of it lately.  However, the question just seems to beg (for me) more questions…  Questions like could I see myself living abroad in the long term?  Would I enjoy working in development?  Would I want to live in West Africa after my time with Peace Corps Mali comes to a close?  I yi yi, je ne sais pas!

Jamie generously hosted a party for his Feb/Mar birthday buddies (l-r) Fletcher - March 3, Laura - March 1 and me - February 28 

If you’re curious though, my latest obsession has been with the Trans-siberian railway and maybe, after Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s 2012, making a somewhat around the world trip for a few months.  Consider this my official ‘putting out the feelers announcement’ for those interested in joining me on pieces of the journey (or if you’ve got a lot of time off, all of it!) or if you know someone along the way with whom I could stay!  Wouldn’t it be great to celebrate my 26th birthday together on the rails of Russia passing through a frozen tundra with the spires of Moscow in the distance??

Brunch at the Comme Chez Soi with Monica and Sara

Turning 25, and maybe I am saying this more for myself than for anyone else, wasn’t scary or emotional in terms of a pivotal time in my life (maybe 26 is??...) but I think that is thanks to liking where I live and enjoying the work I do.  I am so thankful for the thoughtful friends and family in my life who make every day a new adventure and something to look forward to.  Thanks also to all of my parents who made this 25th birthday a possibility – I really couldn’t have done it without you J  Oh, and as for what I am doing with my life…well, on verra!   

a sunset not far from my house in Bamako
See more pictures from the festivites here!
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